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Email Getting a Makeover!

The New York Times (publishing on Yahoo Finance) recently posted an article about how email is getting a makeover and how the communication medium is being shunned by the younger crowd as they move more and more towards other platforms. If you like using email, that means you’re an old fogey. When the Internet exploded in growth in 1995, email was a pretty cool commodity. Now, it’s not that big a deal anymore, according to the New York Times.

Young people, of course, much prefer online chats and text messages. These have been on the rise for years but are now threatening to eclipse e-mail, much as they have already superseded phone calls. Major Internet companies like Facebook are responding with message services that are focused on immediate gratification.

The problem with e-mail, young people say, is that it involves a boringly long process of signing into an account, typing out a subject line and then sending a message that might not be received or answered for hours. And sign-offs like “sincerely”—seriously?

Lena Jenny, 17, a high school senior in Cupertino, Calif., said texting was so quick that “I sometimes have an answer before I even shut my phone.” E-mail, she added, is “so lame.”

Facebook is trying to appeal to the Lenas of the world. It is rolling out a revamped messaging service that is intended to feel less like e-mail and more like texting.

The company decided to eliminate the subject line on messages after its research showed that it was most commonly left blank or used for an uninformative “hi” or “yo.”

Facebook also killed the “cc” and “bcc” lines. And hitting the enter key can immediately fire off the message, à la instant messaging, instead of creating a new paragraph. The changes, company executives say, leave behind time-consuming formalities that separate users from what they crave: instant conversation.

“The future of messaging is more real time, more conversational and more casual,” said Andrew Bosworth, director of engineering at Facebook, where he oversees communications tools. “The medium isn’t the message. The message is the message.”

As I have stated elsewhere, it’s true that younger people have a variety of means of communication at their disposal and other things like SMS and IM get a quicker response. But these types of transactional 1-to-1 communications have their own place as well.  They are not as convenient to use when you are communicating on a many-to-one basis and expecting to receive back replies, or receiving messages when you are out of town, when the message is not urgent, receiving transactional notifications (like a receipt that you bought something from Amazon), and so forth.

It’s a reflection of the culture of the generation using the message. Young people like to communicate instantaneously with their friends, but speaking personally, I communicate with multiple people at the same time and can’t use chats and text messages to juggle those things simultaneously. If I need something quick, I use a mechanism other than email. But let’s face it, not everything is urgent. Maybe I am an old guy now (I just turned 32) but teens and the like simply don’t live in a world where they need more complex communication platforms. Sure, texting is simple, but with simplicity is the loss of archiving messages, attaching documents, and everything else I mention in the previous paragraph. You can’t text your co-worker without a subject line because he receives tons of communication and needs to know what it’s about.

Formal communication is more structured than informal communication, which is what Facebook chatting is all about (i.e., Facebook chatting is more informal). So, it can dispense with niceties. But think about it—all of us in our daily lives use different ways to communicate with each other. With our friends we are more casual and use slang. With our work colleagues and even acquaintances, we drop the slang and adopt formal or semi-formal language. Thus, the world that 12- to 17-year olds inhabit is not representative of the real world, just like not paying income taxes, not having to go to work and pay bills, not having to have car and home insurance, and not having to do your own laundry is not representative of the real world. As you get older and your world changes, your realities change.

Does this mean that the current crop of 12- to 17-year olds will eventually stop shunning email or return to it? I don’t normally go out on a limb like this, but I think that the answer is yes. When your world evolves and becomes more complex such that your biggest concern is not when Justin Bieber is next coming to town, you need better ways to organize data and communication in your life. Scrolling through a bunch of text messages is not the most efficient way to do this. Necessity is the mother of invention, but thankfully we will not have to reinvent email (although we might change the protocol).

Mr. Katz, the Rutgers professor, said texting and social networks better approximated how people communicated in person—in short snippets where niceties did not matter. Over time, he said, e-mail will continue to give way to faster-twitch formats, even among older people.

This will be true in some contexts, but certainly not in all of them. The entire world is not in your social network. It’s going to be a long time before social conventions change such that we can be cool and casual with everyone.

By Terry Zink, Program Manager

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